A lot of the language used by Socialists can be confusing, especially for people who are not used to it. We get it. The first time we heard “Dialectical Materialism”, we were immediately lost. We didn’t understand what these people were talking about, and therefore it was impossible to contribute to the conversation. More importantly, it was impossible for us to learn anything. Well, we’re still learning, but we also want people to learn along with us.
We realized that the confusion some may feel (that we felt) might turn some people away from Socialism and Marxism. In our efforts to make this science more accessible and understandable, we saw the need for a Glossary. This list of terms will most certainly grow as we dig deeper into the current conditions of society and the historical developments that have brought us to this point. We hope that it is helpful to the beginning Socialist as well as a useful resource and refresher for those already well-versed in Socialist theory and the terms it uses.
Alienation – through the Division of Labor, the Worker is estranged from the finished product of their labor. Where a worker once was part of the entire production process, and had a connection to the finished product, now Workers stand in one spot and perform the same single step in production over and over, and they have no connection to – or are alienated from – the finished product.
Anarchism – contrary to the popular misunderstanding of the word Anarchy, this term does not mean lawlessness, chaos, and violence. In fact, it means the very opposite, but simply without rulers. Anarchism is a school of thought that criticizes any structure of hierarchy or of State control. Anarchists wish for a society of autonomy. This school of thought has within it many sub-schools, usually identified by combining two terms, i.e. Anarcho-Syndicalism or Anarcho-Communism.
Autonomy – freedom from external control or influence; independence. The right or condition of self-governance.
Bourgeoisie – The French word for Capitalists. This is the Ruling Class – the social class that owns the means of production, the exploiters of the Working Class. The concerns of the Bourgeoisie are the value of their property, the preservation of Capital, the expansion of markets, and the maximizing of profit, all in order to secure their supremacy over the Proletarian.
Bourgeois Democracy – modern liberal representative democracies, i.e. democracies for the rich, as the representatives in these governments only represent the rich, and the media is nothing more than a propaganda outlet controlled by the Capitalists.
Capital – one of the three factors of producing value (the other two are Land and Labor). Capital can be Financial Wealth or Private Ownership of the Means Of Production, usually both.
Capitalism – An economic system that allows the ownership of Private Property, with the goal of exploiting the Worker and their labor for profit by the sale of the commodities produced by the worker.
Class – In Sociology, a Class is a division or portion of a society based on shared characteristics of social or economic status.
Class Consciousness – the awareness of the class system and of membership to a class, and the understanding of the actual collective interests of each class.
Class Struggle – the strained relationship between opposing classes (master v slave, lord v serf, Capitalist v worker) caused by a difference in interests. This tension is only resolved through confrontation.
Communism – an economic system where there is no state, no class, and no money, where the means of production are owned and controlled democratically by the community and provides for the benefit of all rather than a few. Wage-slavery is non-existent, production is planned for need or use rather than overproduction for private profit.
Democracy – from the Greek demokratia, literally translated as “rule of the people”. This is not to be confused with the modern idea of Representative Democracy, which is, in practice, not democracy at all. This is certainly not to be confused with the US Political Party, which represents the Capitalist Class interests over the Working Class. True democracy is a system of government or social structure where supreme power is held by the People and operated in the interests of the People.
Democratic Centralism – a principle of Leninism which states that after decisions are reached by a group or organization, the decision is then followed by the entire group. Lenin described this as “diversity in discussion, unity in action”.
Democratic Socialism – (not to be confused with Social Democracy) a school of Socialist thought (sometimes called Socialism Lite) that believes that the best way to move towards a Socialist society is through reforming the current social and political structures and working within Establishment Political Parties (in the US, working within the Democrat Party) to affect the desired changes through legislative means. This form of Socialism has been criticized for Incrementalism (small, gradual changes), and for the willingness and desire to work within the current electoral political structure that has given us the current social, political, and economic conditions.
Dialectical Materialism – the philosophical understanding of the material conditions of reality. It recognizes that the main motivating force of history is the mode of production, and that each stage of social structure is a result of Class contradictions and the resolutions of those contradictions, which in turn result in a completely new mode of production and social structure.
Dictatorship of the Proletariat – This phrase, coined by Joseph Weydemeyer, simply means that the Working Class has political supremacy and dictates what happens in society. In Marxist theory, this is used to describe the transitional period from Capitalism to Communism in which both Classes (Bourgeoisie and Proletariat) still exist, but social and political power has been transferred from the Ruling Class to the Working Class and society is in the process of changing the means of production from private ownership to community ownership. It is extremely important to understand the difference between this concept and the the concept of a Totalitarian Dictatorship as we understand them today – that is the selfish, immoral, and unjust rule of one person or small group of people over the entirety of a nation-state.
…the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of production; …class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; …this dictatorship, itself, constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.
– Karl Marx, in a letter to Joesph Weydemeyer, 1852
Fascism – many people hold different definitions of this term as a result of the different Material and Social conditions in various lands and times. Fascists scapegoat and demonize other groups, such as Jews or Communists, though those groups differ by country and era. Overall, it is agreed that Fascism is generally characterized as Nationalist and often Racist, based on the cult of personality of a “strong leader” over any democratic systems, and an alliance between the Bourgeoisie and the Petty-Bourgeoisie to secure supremacy of the minority over the Working Class.
Feudalism – the social structure that predominated the Middle Ages. This system saw local lords that would allow serfs (a person in a condition of servitude, required to render services to a lord, commonly attached to the lord’s land and transferred with it from one owner to another) to live and sustain themselves on the land held by the local lord, and providing the Landlord with labor and military support. These Lords, in turn, pledged allegiance to a monarch, who required that same support in return for their official social status and title, and the right of ownership of land and property. Feudal lords were overthrown by the Bourgeoisie.
Imperialism – Domination of a weaker nation by a stronger one. This refers to the conquering (invasion) of a nation and it’s people, and an exploitation of its resources and labor. If you ever wondered why the US spends more on their military force than the next eight nations combined…
Labor Theory of Value – this theory states that the economic value of a product (a good or service) is determined by the amount of labor that goes into production rather than a value determined by market demand, or by the use or pleasure the consumer may find.
Liberalism – the political ideology that justifies Capitalism and reinforces Class Antagonisms. The Liberal sees rights – such as free speech, free press, freedom of religion, and especially the freedom to own Private Property – as individual civil rights rather than collective human rights. To the Liberal, though they may say they believe in liberty and equality, Imperialism, Exploitation for Profit, and Class Division are all acceptable conditions.
Mass Strike – this is arguably the most powerful tactic of the Working Class struggling under Capitalism. A Mass Strike occurs when a large portion of Workers in a particular industry in a particular city, region, or country collectively refuse to work. Where a Strike can be one or just a few people in one or a few workplaces voicing their discontent, a Mass Strike requires the mobilization of a substantial portion of Workers in that Industry, with the goal of crippling or ceasing production, and therefore any profit, until concessions are made from the Capitalist Class.
Means of Production – also known as Capital – the tangible, non-labor necessities for production in Modern Industry, i.e. tools, machinery, workplaces, factories, equipment, etc.
Nationalism – a key component of Fascism, this refers to an ideology that holds the people of one nation, and often race, as supreme over others. It emphasizes self-governance and self-sovereignty, but does not recognize those same rights in other groups. It emphasizes national identity and patriotism over internationalism.
Personal Property – these are the things that a person owns for their own use and consumption. Contrary to what some folks believe, neither Socialism nor Communism seeks to do away with Personal Property, which includes things like your house, your TV, your pots and pans, and your toothbrush.
Petty Bourgeoisie (also Petite Bourgeoisie) – a lower sub-class of the Bourgeoisie, which is made up of smaller-scale Capitalists, such as Shopkeepers or managers of the production or distribution process of the goods and services of their Capitalist employers. It often is used in reference to “Small Business Owners”. The politico-economic ideology of the Petty Bourgeoisie in times of socioeconomic stability is a mirror of the haute (high) bourgeoisie, of which the petite bourgeoisie wishes to be a part of, and which it strives to imitate.
Praxis – simply put, this means Action with Purpose. This refers to the act of practicing ideas and and principles in real life rather than just theorizing. An example of praxis could be radicalizing coworkers or organizing trade unions.
Private Property – the Means of Production owned by private individuals (or corporations). This ownership is claimed only by title, and not by use. The aim of Private Property is to gain profit in the form of “rents” from the Worker. For example – money to pay for the maintenance costs of a machine in a factory cannot come from the value of the raw materials put into the machine, but only from the profit of a finished product. Since all profit is created by labor, the Worker not only works for their wages, they also work to pay those maintenance costs.
Proletariat – this is the Working Class, or the class of wage-earning workers who receive no profit from Capital of any kind, and whose survival depends on the demand for their labor power and their ability to work.
Reformism – an ideological position that advocates for the reform of an existing system rather than replacing or abolishing that system.
Revisionism – a term of disapproval used by Marxists that refers to ideas, theories, or principles that require major revisions of the fundamental principles of Marxism.
Revolution – a fundamental change in political or social power and the organization of that power.
Slavery – a system where an individual is allowed to own other human beings as property, to extract profit from their labor.
Socialism – this can refer to the wide range of systems that are fundamentally characterized by the social ownership of the means of production, or it can refer to any one of those systems. It can also refer to the transitional stage between Capitalism and Communism, which is sometimes also called the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”.
Social Democracy – an ideology that promotes social justice within the framework of Capitalism rather than replacing Capitalism with Socialism or Communism. The focus of Social Democracy is the regulation of the excesses of Capitalism to protect workers, consumers, and disadvantaged groups. It often includes tax-funded and universal welfare provisions. This can also refer to a Welfare State, or State Capitalism.
Socialized Property (or Community Property) – Democratically or socially owned and controlled means of production. Socialized Property is put to use for the benefit of the many rather than the profit of a few. Surplus value may still be created, but that profit would go to the Workers in one form or another, rather than to the Capitalist.
State – The State is an organization of force used for the oppression and supremacy of one class over another. Under a Capitalist Society, the State upholds, and even enforces, Capitalism, and uses force to suppress the working class (riot police using tear gas and water cannons on citizens at a protest, for example).
State Capitalism – this in an economic system where the State owns some of the means of production. Surplus value may still be extracted, and wage labor is still used to create that value, but the State decides how to distribute that value. It may go towards reinvestment of a service (for example, public transportation may create a profit that could then be used to buy more busses or to expand train routes), or the surplus may go into a general fund. Sometimes called Social Democracy, or Welfare State.
Surplus Value (or Profit) – this is the entire goal of the Capitalist system. This refers to the value added to raw materials through labor that is not used to replace materials or to pay wages or administrative costs. Since value cannot be added to raw materials without labor, all surplus value is created by labor. It goes something like this:
raw materials + labor = market value
market value – replacement materials – administrative costs – wages = surplus value, or profit
In other words, all Surplus Value, or Profit, is created by the Worker and appropriated by the Capitalist. This term is also called Unpaid Labor, Exploitation, and Wage Theft.
Utopian – modeled on or aiming for a state of being where everything is perfect. This is also called idealism and, while there is little chance of that perfect society ever being realized, many see the Utopian Ideal as a goal that will keep forward progress – like a carrot on the end of a stick.
Vanguardism – a political strategy where the most class-conscious and politically advanced sections of the working class form organizations that seek to counteract political apathy, and that serve as manifestations of Proletarian political power against the Bourgeoisie as well as conservative and reactionary opposition within the Working Class itself. The idea is that the Proletarian Vanguard will lead a push into revolution, whereupon the Proletariat as a whole can seize power and become the Ruling Class.
Welfare State – a State which provides services on behalf of the well-being of its citizens within the framework of Capitalism. Many use this term in reference to Scandinavian nations, the UK, or Germany, but it can be used in reference to any Capitalist State that provides Social Services. Often seen as measures to placate the Working Class so that the Capitalist may continue to exploit their labor. Sometimes used to refer to Social Democracy, or State Capitalism.
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